The Cooptex Turnaround

Special Report: The Co-optex Turnaround

How the managing director of Tamil Nadu’s apex marketing co-operative changed the track of the 83-year-old brand

TN Venkatesh’s warm and wide smile lights up his working chambers, adjacent to the brightly lit, busy, and big Co-optex store in Egmore, Chennai. The managing director of Tamil Nadu’s apex marketing co-operative—Co-optex—Venkatesh sits in his chair (its sarkari-ness evident) without any posturing. Against one of the walls is a fabric installation of three silken textiles in the colours of the Indian flag. Right behind is the Co-optex logo—the multi-hued fabric butterfly launched in 2006. Nationalistic pride and cultural symbols of South India sit around casually in this office and the air smells of optimism.


TN Venkatesh, MD, Co-optex in his office.

Venkatesh’s name kept coming up in the process of identifying stories with current relevance from “South India”. His dedication in putting the state-run conglomerate of weavers’ societies firmly on the saddle riding towards change was much talked about.

From 2014 when he took charge as its MD till now, the 42-year-old Venkatesh has been doggedly following a strategic turn-around project to spike the 83-year-old institution with innovation, digitalisation, new marketing techniques, untried training modules for weavers and modernisation of showrooms across India.



A refurbished Co-optex showroom.

A newly published coffee table book titled Metamorphosis: Blazing a New Path in Handloom Retailing (a first such Co-optex publication) sits proudly on his desk. Even as it sums up the new impulses of this geriatric brand, thus offering almost a map of Venkatesh’s work in the last four years, it also engagingly takes the reader into nuances of traditions of weaving, dyeing, and printing in South India. How the kings—the Cholas, the Cheras, and the Pandyas—from eras gone by, brought weavers from neighbouring Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to the silk weaving belt of Kancheepuram and to Madurai from Saurashtra in Gujarat.


An image of dyeing from the Co-optex coffee table book titled ‘Metamorphosis: Blazing a New Path in Handloom Retailing’.

The book is a visual delight. Images of smiling weavers, family units who make livelihoods from handloom work, looms strung with yarn, processes of natural dyeing, organic weaves, a robust representation of textiles from different districts of Tamil Nadu as well as new categories of Co-optex merchandise dot this book. Each chapter uses a motif from some kind of Tamil Nadu handloom sari, revealing the grammar of textile design.

Scripting the Turnaround

Five months after he took charge in 2014 as MD, Venkatesh launched the e-commerce business for Co-optex that badly needed new models of marketing and sale. Four years since then, is the best performing among apex societies of all states. In the last year itself, the sales rose to ₹ 1.5 crores through e-commerce alone.


An illustration of the online sales chart of Co-optex from 2014 to 2018.

Launching a portal however, was just one part of the multi-pronged programming to resuscitate life into this very old brand. Its place as an authentic store for silk saris and handlooms has stuck with the older generations of buyers especially in South India but for a majority of younger consumers in other regions, Co-optex may draw a complete blank. As would its lesser known counterparts perhaps—APCO in Andhra Pradesh or Boyanika in Odisha for instance.

Established in 1935 to market handloom products inside and outside Tamil Nadu, Co-optex was defined as a conglomerate of weaving societies. It trudged through the freedom movement, Independence, post-Independent India’s hiccups, the decline in the production and sale of handloom goods in those decades, followed by the crafts revival movements and the headiness of economic liberalisation. GST and demonetization are very recent challenges.

For those growing up in the India of the seventies and the eighties, Co-Optex certainly rang a bell if you had some kind of handloom consciousness. Even though it was never in the phalanx of the top recall-worthy brands that mirrored a bunch of New India aspirations—Bajaj scooter, Fiat car, Handloom House (no longer called that), Khadi Bhandar, Bournvita, Bata, Parle G, Air India, Binaca Geetmala, even Doordarshan.


In figures: Total handlooom weavers’ co-operative societies and total metres of fabrics accounted by the handloom societies of Tamil Nadu.

A Consumer Preference Survey

“When I joined, I felt the need to take Co-optex to new unchartered territories,” says Venkatesh. “The timing was right. In the last few years, there has been a surge in the fondness for handlooms and khadi including among young people,” says Venkatesh. “So instead of aimlessly trying to innovate or expand, we first invested in a survey to understand what customers actually wanted,” he adds.

In 2015, Co-optex launched a state-wide survey for respondents in the 22-42 age group, among FMCG groups, banks, IT companies, and colleges. It asked potential buyers what they would like to see evolve and change in Co-optex and what they associated with the brand. One of the first things that came up, explains Venkatesh, was the need to modernise showrooms to make them look like trendy shopping destinations. Following this, he says, he went on a showroom modernisation drive. Today, 55 out of 177 showrooms across India have been modernised—everything from interiors, display racks, visual merchandising, store windows, and advertising campaigns have undergone a reinterpretation.

The next thing high on the priorities of the customer base being tapped was a softer colour palette, a far cry from the bold, bright colours of South Indian silks and cottons. If pastel shades, lighter colours, ivories, and whites were one part of the push, the other was introducing organic textiles as a sustainability initiative.


An upgraded Co-optex store featuring smarter display corner.

The Sustainability Conversation

For Co-optex’s organic saris, the cotton is sourced from farms which do not use pesticides, and all dyes for colouring the yarn are natural, made from plant extracts. “When we started this in February 2015 in a small way, it wasn’t easy convincing the weavers of Tamil Nadu,” says Venkatesh. He explains that weaving a sari with organic cotton is not as simple. Ordinary cotton that uses chemically dyed yarn is usually coarse whereas organic cotton yarn snaps easily. But persistence paid off. From the 10 looms in Coimbatore that did organic weaving, today 170 work exclusively with organic cotton. Now the Madurai region too weaves organic cottons. These lovely saris—many in whites and softer shades—now sit alongside other strong-bodied, bold-coloured traditional handlooms of Tamil Nadu on the refurbished shelves of many Co-optex stores.



Photograph of weavers of Tamil Nadu from the Co-optex coffee table book.

The organic sari is clearly set to become a bestseller. In 2017-2018 itself, Co-optex sold 17,000 such saris priced between ₹ 1,700 and ₹ 3,000.

Weavers as well as textile designers who work with Co-optex were all roped into the sustainability conversation in a participative manner. The aim was to make them believe in environmentally friendly concepts before making the requisite change.

Saris: Past Forward

While Co-optex’s sustainability strategy includes Ahimsa silk saris, there are other interventions aimed at revival of lost designs. Kooraianadu saris (made in Koorainadu village, they are worn during a Tamil wedding when the groom ties the mangalsutra on the bride’s neck), Madurai Sungudis (made by weavers brought to Tamil Nadu from Saurashtra for their tie and dye skills, this sari is now reproduced with printed dots and tie and dye borders), Chettinadu Kandangi (woven in Karaikudi and known for earthy colours and coarse texture), and Zero Zari saris are among Co-optex’s current thrust. Whereas to widen its merchandise categories, it has included linen shirts for men, ready-to-wear kurtas and kurtis for women, and a line of quilts and jacquard bedsheets.


An illustrative portrayal of Co-optex sales of home furnishings.

But instead of slipping into an illusory, all-consuming spell of the “new”, Co-optex retains its oldness in many ways. A good instance is the ‘MS Blue’ collection as part of vintage Kanjeevarams. Launched in 2015, the centenary year of the late music maestro MS Subbulakshmi, this is a collection of Kanjeevaram silks in luscious shades of sapphire blues and gemstone purples as loved and worn by Tamil Nadu’s beloved singer-legend. The other symbolically rife idea is the revival of the Rukmini Devi saris. The founder and doyen of Kalakshetra in Chennai, Rukmini Devi designed geometrically striking handloom saris that were woven in the Kalakshetra campus and worn by Bharat Natyam dancers who trained and performed under her tutelage. Repeating her vocabulary of broad borders in bright contrasting colours woven with zari and large motifs of peacocks, jasmine buds, rudraksh beads yield strong heritage creations for Co-optex.


Photograph of a sari from the Co-optex ‘MS Blue’ (inspired by the late music maestro MS Subbulakshmi) collection of Kanjeevarams.

Weavers as Partners

For many years now, Co-optex saris come with a weaver identification card. It includes a weaver’s photograph, name, age and the days/weeks taken to make a sari. In the current scenario of social media debates in the fashion and design industry on #CreditWhereDue and #WhoOwnsTheSari, references to Co-Optex as a weaver-first network need to be emphasized. Under Venkatesh, these tags now carry additional information with a small note on the sari—its yarn, type, the district it was woven, price, and prototype.

Currently, one lakh weavers work inside the Tamil Nadu Co-optex network. Forty per cent are female and sixty per cent are men. “In most families, mothers of male weavers do a lot of pre-loom activity,” says Venkatesh.

Forty per cent of the price of every sari goes directly to the weaver in a cooperative society. A silk sari takes 16 days to weave, while it takes three days to weave a cotton sari. Wages differ accordingly. Besides, not every weaver is skilled to weave silk as well as cotton. Those who handle jacquards usually earn more as is the case with those who weave silk.

Since all one lakh Co-optex weavers are ensured with round-the- year employment, their living conditions have improved compared to past decades. In Dindigul, says Venkatesh, Co-optex employment has helped prevent weavers from migrating to other cities and professions. Some of this motivation has come from training and mentoring them in handloom experiments, design ideologies, and colour innovation. Venkatesh introduced exchange programmes for weavers where chosen groups are taken for fortnight-long educational workshops to other states to observe weaving techniques and processes. A first such initiative was tried by taking Tamil Nadu weavers to Nuapatna in Odisha.

However, Venkatesh admits that it is hard to convince the younger generation among weaver families to stay with the family profession. “Most weavers are above 40 years of age and that is the fact,” he says.


Co-optex saris come with a weaver identification card including a weaver’s photo, name, age and the time taken to make a sari.

Meaning and the Man

Born into a Tamil Brahmin family of South India, Venkatesh lived in Mumbai and Delhi where he would go on to pursue a Masters in Economics before becoming an IAS officer. Passionate about travel, heritage, cuisine, and textiles, he says from a very young age, he could distinguish a Paithani sari from a Kanjeevaram. Working at Co-optex was high on his wish list when he thought about his career. “When I would pass this landmark Co-optex building in Chennai, I would think I must try and make it as its MD. I have been lucky to have a long tenure, long enough to make field-level changes. As an IAS officer for him, it is another posting after all even though a very significant one.

While he describes himself as persuasive and affirmative, Venkatesh wears the influence of his work lightly. He recounted this turnaround story with the grace of a seasoned musician, instead of an impatient rapper. Unraveled like soft yarn, his account soon felt taut like a textile once it’s fully woven.

Stuff that game changing stories are made of.

Now for Co-optex to make its way to the list of as the top handloom brands and ring in with young consumers across India, it needs sustained work and perhaps a slicker promotional and marketing strategy. Course corrections will be a part of the process. Changing bureaucratic and political leadership sometimes spokes such projects.

So some may wait to see if the butterfly will indeed pollinate.

Photos courtesy: Co-optex